Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The USS Kemper County

During World War II and in America’s other conflicts in the 20th Century (i.e., Korea and Vietnam), naval power was essential in delivering the troops and equipment necessary to do the job at hand. Among the most under-appreciated but necessary components of any amphibious operation, especially in the Pacific Theater during World War II, was the Landing Ship, Tank, or LST. Created during WWII, these ships were capable of carrying vast amounts of cargo, vehicles and troops right to the shoreline. Among the LSTs which saw extensive service in World War II and beyond was LST-854, later designated the USS Kemper County.

LST-854 was laid down by the Chicago Bridge & Iron Company in Seneca, Illinois, in August 1944, and launched on November 20, with Lieutenant E. J. Robeson in command. The ship departed for the Pacific from New Orleans in January 1945. By April 1, she was off the coast of Ulithi in the Caroline Islands, amid preparations for the invasion of Okinawa. With an Army Aviation Engineer Battalion on board, LST-854 arrived at Okinawa on April 18, and despite heavy Japanese air raids successfully unloaded the troops and equipment. From then until the end of the war, LST-854 operated between the Philippines and the Okinawa. At the end of the war, the ship was used to move Navy and Marine Corps personnel to various ports in the Pacific until 1949, when the ship returned to the United States and was decommissioned at Puget Sound Navy Yard.

With the outbreak of the Korean War, LST-854 was brought back into service on November 20, 1950, just a year after being mothballed. After training for her crew in San Diego, she moved to the theater of war and was used to transport prisoners-of-war and participated in other logistical operations. The image above is LST-854 at Taeyonpyong, Korea, in 1952. In January, 1952, LST-854 was involved in the landing of the 40th Division at Inchon and, later on in the conflict, shuttled U.N. forces to various points in the region. With the truce that ended active fighting in Korea, the ship was again used to transport prisoners-of-war for exchange.

Returning to San Diego in October 1953, LST-854 was renamed the USS Kemper County on July 1, 1955, the only United States ship bearing that name. For the next five years, the Kemper County was involved in amphibious training exercises in California and Hawaii and for transport. This photo (right) was taken by am American serviceman from the deck of the ship as his unit was on the way to Japan in 1959.

In 1965, she would once again be called into action, this time in support of operations along the coast of Vietnam. Arriving in Da Nang in November 1965, the Kemper County would spend the rest of the war in riverine operations in the Mekong Delta. Four times, the Kemper County ascended enemy-controlled waters as far as 90 miles inland to deliver supplies to South Vietnamese troops, and in March 1966, she came to the assistance of a burning tanker, the SS Paloma, which had been seriously damaged during a Viet Cong attack on the Saigon River. After reaching the Paloma, the Kemper County shelled the riverbank while assisting the burning tanker. In the photo below, the Kemper County is seen in Vietnam alongside an Australian barge.

With the end of the war in Vietnam, the Kemper County was decommissioned for the last time on May 28, 1969. She was transferred to to the government of Barbados in July 1975 and renamed Northpoint and later sold to Panama and renamed again El Gato Blanco. There is no further information on her disposition.

Although not a battleship, destroyer or aircraft carrier, the LST-854 / Kemper County served well in three American wars. For her actions, LST-854 received one battle star for service in World War II, five battle stars for her actions in the Korean War and one Navy Unit Commendation and six campaign stars for her service in Vietnam.


  1. My Dad, Larry "Spider" Moore served aboard LST-854 during the Korean War. He was in the crew that brought this ship back into commission in 1950. He was a storekeeper, (first a striker, then became rated) and his GQ station was the 20MM AA.
    He spoke fondly of this ship, and her crew.
    He passed away 11 JAN 2003.

  2. Interesting story Jim! You really caught my attention with your post about this LST by mentioning that she was part of the "mothball fleet" or inactive vessel facility at Puget Sound Navy Yard (now known as Puget Sound Naval Shipyard and Intermediate Maintenance Facility), which is located in my hometown of Bremerton, Washington. Other famous WW II vessels that were mothballed there include the battleships USS Missouri (BB-63)--the vessel where the Empire of Japan surrendered to the Allies in 1945--and USS New Jersey (BB-62). Both of these Iowa class battleships also saw action during the Korean War and Vietnam, but were also reactivated in the 1980s. The USS Missouri saw action during Operation Desert Storm in 1991, where it fired Tomahawk cruise missiles and its 16-inch main guns at Iraqi targets. Also once mothballed in Bremerton at various times were several of the WW II-era Essex class aircraft carriers, including the USS Yorktown (CV-10) and the USS Hornet (CV-12). Similar to the USS Kemper County, many of the Essex class aircraft carriers again saw action during the Korean and Viet Nam conflicts. Both the Yorktown and the Hornet played a major role in the manned space program of the 1960s. The Yorktown recovered the astronauts of Apollo 8 after the 1968 mission that marked both the first time humans left earth's orbit and the first time humans orbited the moon, while the Hornet recovered the astronauts of Apollo 11 following the 1969 mission that landed the first humans on the moon. Later that year, Hornet recovered the Apollo 12 astronauts. The following summer, however, she was decommissioned, and arrived at Puget Sound. All four ships--New Jersey, Missouri, Yorktown, and Hornet--have since left Bremerton. The New Jersey is in Camden, NJ; the Missouri is parked near the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor; the Yorktown is berthed at Patriot's Point in Charleston, SC; and the Hornet is in Alameda, California. Happily, all four vessels are open to the public. Many of the vessels that go into the facility at Bremerton are later sold for scrap, which was the fate of the USS Tautog (SSN-639). Built by Ingalls Shipbuilding of Pascagoula, Mississippi in the early 1960s, Tautog was the last submarine my father served aboard (he was part of the vessel's crew when President Carter deployed a carrier task force, which included Tautog, following an American hostage crisis Ugandan strongman Idi Amin precipitated in 1977), and the only submarine that I have ever been on while it was submerged. In 1997 she was decommissioned and stricken from the naval register. The Tautog remained at Bremerton for another seven years until she was "recycled" in 2004, meaning that her nuclear reactor was removed and properly disposed, and the non-contaminated parts of the ship sold for scrap. Four years later, the ACHP Chairman sent me to Galveston Island to meet with staff from FEMA and Texas SHPO and to survey damage Hurricane Ike caused to historic buildings. While riding the ferry from the mainland over to Galveston, someone pointed to the collection of navy vessels at Seawolf Park. Tilting to one side and resting on its port diving plane, was Tautog's superstructure or "sail."

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  4. From Robert Miller, I was a crew member of the Kemper on March 3, 1966 when the rescue of the tanker SS Paloma took place. The ship was enroute up river to the So.Viet. Army HQ at Can Tho (90 miles inland).About two in the afternoon we rounded a bend in the river and came directly upon a viet Cong attack in progress on the tanker Paloma which was then adrift with a major fire buring on the main deck. Kemper immediately went into battle stations and the 40mm twin cannons engaged the Viet Cong along the shore. Firefigthing crews from the Kemper advanced water hose lines to the Paloma under combat conditions. After about one hour the flames were extinguished and the Viet Cong had fled the scene.Some of the crew of the Paloma were killed. My duty was to run the emergency fire pump located in a small steel compartment directly below the 40 MM guns. The loud noise of the fire pump along with the deafining blast of the guns directly above me, made it almost impossible to hear the radio call in the earphones from the captain to increase the pump to maximum pressure. For this rescue effort the ship's crew was awarded the Combat Action Ribbon.

  5. Follow up comment from Robert Miller EN2 USS Kemper County LST 854 crew member 1965-66.
    The USS Kemper County made history by becoming the first US navel ship to nagivate up the Mekong river water ways during the Vietnam War. Transiting enemy controlled rivers through jungle terrain was very uncertain and required the ship to anchor at mid stream at night under heavy guard.
    This journey preceeded the establishment of the later joint Navy/Army Mobile Riverine Force.
    The USS Kemper County served three tours in Vietnam 65-68 and was awarded the Combat Action Ribbion,Navy Unit Citation, and six campain stars. ribbions.